Broadening Latitudes: Mapping a Sociological History of Literary Translation into Swahili

Serena Talento

University of Bayreuth, Bayreuth


This chapter tracks the history of literary translation into Swahili through a sociological lens. Such a history sheds light on the methodological and theoretical implications of mapping literary histories from so-called peripheral contexts, especially considering the marginality of translation research on African settings in translation studies. In examining the complex social history of Swahili literary imports, I focus on the advantages of including peripheral contexts in the international map of translation studies, from the perspective of both data accumulation and theory building.

African Literary Translation Historiography and the Swahili Experience

Since the early 2000s, the Eurocentrism that dominated translation studies in the twentieth century has come increasingly under debate (see Van Doorslaer and Flynn 2013). In particular, Maria Tymoczko (2006) and §ebnem Susam-Sarajeva (2002) maintain that a truly comprehensive, multilingual and international translation studies can only be attained through greater exposure to non-European and marginalised contexts, including theorising on translation from these contexts. Indeed, the Global South has received increasing attention in translation research in an endeavour to “push back the largely Eurocentric boundaries of the discipline and to remap the field” (Kothari and Wakabayashi 2009:4). Nevertheless, despite the multilingualism of African contexts, translation and interpretation phenomena in Africa are under-researched.[1]

Historical research into translation and interpretation practices in Africa is even more marginal. Charles Atangana Nama (1990, 1993, 2009) was the first to map histories of (religious, literary and technical) translation in African contexts, particularly of Cameroon, with a clear theoretical and methodological orientation. With his research extending across languages, geographical areas and historical eras, he undermined “the myth that translation and especially interpretation in Africa began with the advent of imperialism” (Nama 1993:414). Nama’s research gave visibility to the agency of African translators and emphasised the historical significance of the translator/interpreter and the development of their status in their countries. His research provided the basis for further studies. For example, Paul Bandia (2009a) outlines the history of translation in Sub-Saharan Africa in the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial eras. Like Nama, Bandia also gives visibility to translation practices in the oral tradition and recognises African translators as independent actors, not simply victims of colonial cultural violence.

In the South African context, Birgitt Olsen (2008) and Maricel Botha (2017) contributed comprehensive studies to the field. Olsen (2008) covers scriptural and secular translation history in a time frame (1652-1860) that is particularly interesting because it ends “just before the Afrikaans language began to coalesce” (Olsen 2008:8). She provides many thumbnail depictions of translators and interpreters, gathered from (auto)biogra-phies, collections of letters, literary histories, mission histories and history of languages. Her catalogue of translations done during this period provides an invaluable resource for translation history researchers. Botha (2017) offers a sociological interpretation of the history of translation in South Africa from the perspective of power and ideology. Embedded in Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory, she examines the social functions of translation practices from the mid-seventeenth century to the present, and includes languages such as Xhosa, Tswana, Southern Sotho, Zulu, Khoisan Language and Afrikaans (see also Botha and Beukes 2019).

For the Horn of Africa—where translation into Ge’ez of the scriptures and literary works from Greek and Arabic is attested (at least in written form) from the fourth century—Enrico Cerulli (1961) traced the development of Ethiopian literature in the light of the impulses it received from religious, cultural and literary networks. Cerulli highlighted the receptivity of Ethiopic literature, permeable to Mediterranean and Asiatic cultural contacts and inclined to creative reformulations of such contacts. Elena Di Giovanni and Chelati Dirar (2015:52) explore the impact of translation on the “shaping and reshaping of cultures, identities and social relations” in the framework of Christian missionary activities in Eritrea and Ethiopia during precolonial, colonial and colonial times. The authors embrace a broad view of translation that encompasses both interlinguis-tic and intercultural activities; for example, they view pilgrimage not only as a spiritual experience but also as a process of translation of cultures.

Riikka Halme-Berneking (2019) sheds light on a geographical area about which very little has been published concerning translation, namely Angola. She reveals the interconnection of translation traditions with language policies, the role of indigenous churches in translation activities, and the place of translation in the media and in schools. She interrogates unexplored issues of directionality, trends of practice, selection criteria, the relationship between the Portuguese and Angolan languages, the social status of translators, and the potential of translation to discover cultural treasures.

The history of translation in the Swahili region has only recently attracted interest. Andrei Zhukov (1996) and Thomas Geider (2008) are pioneers in this respect. While Zhukov examines the relationship between Swahili literature and “the literatures of the West and the Orient” (1996:273), Geider focuses on the translation of world literature into Swahili from the first missionaries to the postcolonial context, but does not include the multiple transfer processes occurring in the precolonial era. Alamin M. Mazrui (1996, 2007, 2016), who has contributed immensely to Swahili literary scholarship and has developed a keen interest in translation practices in the Swahili context, also privileges historical research from the missionary period to the present. He discusses the relationship of translated texts to the broader field of Swahili literature, thus developing the concept of transtextualisation (Mazrui 1996, 2007). Furthermore, in Cultural politics of translation: East Africa in a global context Mazrui (2016) explores the political implications of translation in several periods of Tanzanian and Kenyan history through the lens of modernity: the way modernity is negotiated and interconnected with tradition, issues of identity and the tension between global and local power relationships. The colonial and postcolonial era are also the historical contexts of Ida Hadjivayanis’s (2011) study. She traces the evolution of translation norms and trends by placing her selection of texts within a broader history of translation practice while simultaneously identifying breaks and continuities.

Despite the growing interest, Swahili literary historiography needs to shed more light on the relationship between power and production of culture, the role of East African translators and their agencies, and translation activities in the precolonial phase, characterised by multiple forms of textual transfer. This would open up new perspectives for understanding the development of Swahili literature and would also allow the East African context to contribute to the international field of translation studies. Generally speaking, in Swahili literary historiography, the definition of the sub-system of translation is challenging (Geider 2008). Swahili literary histories seldom comment on Swahili literary translations, and when they do, these comments are limited to cursory mentions of Bible translations, some English classics translated in the 1930s and 1940s, Shakespearean translations, and African literature from the

1980s. Furthermore, the historiography of Swahili translation requires a more extensive theoretical and methodological orientation capable of relating a specific study to an international discussion of translation phenomena. For example, in spite of recent international development of sociological approaches to translation, translation practices into Swahili have not yet been addressed from a sociological perspective. Thus this chapter is a timely contribution to mapping a sociological history of literary translation into Swahili.

  • [1] Apart from the present volume, key works include Bandia 2008, Inggs and Meintjes 2009, Hanna 2016, Mazrui 2016, Marais and Feinauer 2017 and Mwangi 2017.
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